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#RIP – Sharad Joshi -venerated leader for farmers

Sharad-Joshi-September-3-1935-December-12-2015-13122015011007Sharad Joshi September 3, 1935 – December 12, 2015 – The Outlier

The man who wanted markets to govern farmers, saw merit in regulating private money lenders, and hated government’s price interventions

Had I not formed a political party, I would have gone down in the history books as farmers’ mahatma. By forming a political party, I downgraded myself,“ said the late Sharad Joshi in an interview a few years ago. But, as he takes his final bow today on December 12, 2015, historians will not grudge him his place as a veteran farmers’ leader who understood the relevance of the unfettered market mechanism for improving the lot of the farmers in Bharat.Joshi, a venerated leader for farmers, understood and articulated various reasons for the poverty of agriculture, but did not start his life as a farmer. He was born on September 3, 1935 in Satara and finished his Masters in Commerce at the Sydenham College in Mumbai in 1957. For a while he was a lecturer in Economics and Statistics in Pune before joining the Indian Postal Service, where he worked from 1958 to 1968. He then joined the United Nations as the Chief of Information Bureau in Switzerland.While in this job, he had the opportunity to visit a few Third World countries as a member of the Second Development Decade group.He saw the immense gap between the metropolitan areas of these countries, which were very similar to that in any developed country and the massively poor hinterlands.That is when Joshi decided to come back to India and understand the issues involved.

He came back to Pune and purchased a dry, non-irrigated piece of land from a farmer near Chakan. He spent his life’s savings searching for water on his field, but in vain. He began to keep detailed accounts of the day-to-day expenses on his farm and soon realised that farming was a losing proposition in this country.At that point, he began to develop his bold understanding of what ails agriculture in India.

For the leftist and socialist thinkers and activists of that time, the problem of Indian agriculture was its feudal and semi-feudal structure.For them, it was a question of rich farmers versus poor farmers, usurious money lenders against debtstruck borrowers. The solution seemed fairly straight-forward: land ceiling and restrictions on money lenders seemed to be the way forward. At the same time, after the Independence, the development policy became highly urban centric, treating agriculture as a feeder into urban development, rather than as a sector that required to be developed on its own terms. This meant controls on agricultural prices and restrictions on the ways in which farmers could access markets for their produce.

Joshi challenged this received wisdom. In fact, he situated the ills of agriculture in these very ideas.Farmers needed free and unfettered access to markets for their produce, instead of being told where, how much, and for what price to sell their produce. For him, agriculture was a loss making proposition for large as well as small farmers because of the myriad controls on agricultural prices as well as the markets for agricultural produce.Private money lenders often helped people access credit, which otherwise they would not have been able to get. Sharad Joshi argued for registering private money lenders and regulating them. He argued that futures markets for agricultural produce actually benefit agriculturists instead of introducing a gambling element in the agricultural commodities markets.

He was against the policy of loan waivers. His point was that such waivers were immoral: through various restrictions on access to markets, the government was taking away from farmers several times more than what it was claiming to give through loan waivers. His point was that right from the Independence, the urban bias in development had robbed farmers in the country of what is rightfully theirs and transferred it to the city dwellers. Therein lay the punch of his distinction between India and Bharat. In fact, Joshi argued that this was bound to happen because the freedom movement lacked rural roots; it was a movement essentially of urban traders and other elite from an essentially non-rural background.

He had hoped that globalisa tion would lead to better days for farmers, but this expectation was belied because agricultural markets continued to be hampered by myriad controls. In frustration, Joshi once warned that the next agricultural revolution was more likely to be red rather than green. He argued that socialist ideas were, in fact, far too urban biased and anti-farmers. Joshi tabled a private members legislation in the Rajya Sabha in 2005 for deletion of the word “socialist“ from the Constitution of India.

These ideas, and the conviction with which Joshi expressed them, both through his speeches and writings, caught the imagination of farmers. Sharad Joshi founded the Shetkari Sanghatana in 1978 in Maharashtra and led several mass agitations. The Shetkari Sanghatana is a non-political organisation with a single point agenda: seeking remunerative prices for agricultural produce.

According to the Shetkari Sanghatana ideologues, the abysmal poverty in India of agricultural region was caused by the fact that the proceeds of the crops did not cover even the bare minimum cost of production. The situation was caused by deliberate policies followed by the national government under the banner of “low cost economy“. The policy, in brief, amounted to a deliberate neo-colonial exploitation of the agriculture in order to provide cheap primary capital for the Indian industry.

The demand for remunerative prices was based on a set of arguments. First, farmers respond rationally to price movements and they will react to price incentives by increasing acreage and investment and by adopting improved technologies. Second, farmers’ response will increase demand for labour and, hence, wage earners will benefit even more than the cultivators.Third, as a consequence of additional income so received, farmers will undertake non-agricultural activities, thus creating employment and the incremental income that will bolster secondary, tertiary as also service sector growth. Finally, trade and the exchange are beneficial for attaining higher levels of produc tion and higher standards of living.With “remunerative agricultural prices“ and “Freedom of access to markets and technology“ as its principal slogans, the Shetkari Sanghatana and other associated farmers’ organisations led many successful agitations under the banner of the Kisan Co-ordination Committee, which attracted farmers in numbers ranging between 1,00,000 to 5,00,000 on successive occasions. Joshi also founded the Shetkari Mahila Aghadi which did important work in conferring property rights on rural women through its Lakshmi Mukti programme.

The Shetkari Sanghatana programme is a very powerful argument for getting rid of the urban bias in our development policies and the plethora of restrictions on market access that have been imposed on farmers. However, focussing entirely on reasons outside agriculture for its plight, one cannot help feeling that it does overlook the difficulties that agriculture has to face because of contradictions from within the sector.Exploitation of small and marginal farmers at the hands of traders and money lenders, the class and caste contradictions between the dominant rural elite and those who serve them and depend upon them, cannot be entirely wished away. But acknowledging them explicitly would perhaps weaken the capacity for strategic political action of agriculturists as a class.

Whatever the reality in this respect might have been, in the death of Joshi, we have lost a mass leader and thinker who raised serious and uncomfortable issues about the agriculture and agriculturists in the country.

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